Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Write On, Write Off

So writing: What's the point?

That's the question lurking at the crux of two very different articles I recently read. The first, from The Chronicle of Higher Education, is the first-person account of an academic ghostwriter. That's right: the guy who helps your students and colleagues cheat without being caught by plagiarism detection software.

I wasn't surprised that such a person existed. I was, however, impressed by the scope of his endeavor. Working from half-literate emails, vague notes, and the vast wonderment that is Google, the ghostwriter has penned papers, project proposals, letters of application, award submissions, and PhD theses. He has contributed toward degrees at hundreds of universities across the United States. And he makes a generous living doing it.

I mean, wow.

I'm fumbling for the right questions to ask. Are we really so illiterate that many of us can no longer generate adequate academic BS? Or are we really so lazy? If we are really so deficient, who, or what, is to blame? The K-12 education system? Societal pressure to attend college even if you are not competent to do so? Employers who prioritize initiative and friendliness over grammar? Is writing at its most basic level -stringing words, sentences, and paragraphs together in a more or less grammatical fashion- becoming like typing once was, a skill you can outsource to facilitate the free flow of your ideas?

It's also possible that I'm asking a whole bunch of questions to cover up the disturbing degree to which the ghost writer's career track appealed to me. I enjoy writing on a basic, building-block level. I especially enjoy cleaning up other folks' crappy writing. And endless, superficial research into wildly differing academic fields? No generation of pesky original research or troublesome narrative ideas? SIGN ME UP!

(The whole abetting cheating thing would utimately stop me. But it's a little unsettling to think how close I've come to crossing this line in the past, and for FREE. I've overhauled divinity school applications, grant proposals, academic papers, and job applications in multiple fields. A friend of mine recently landed a competitive position. In a press release, the employer quoted from the new hire's cover letter. Guess who wrote that particular passage?)

You could argue from the Chronicle of Higher Ed article that we're devaluing writing. But according to Laura Miller, we're overvaluing it. Follow the link to Miller's much vilified Salon article on NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo is a project that encourages people to write a (short) novel over the course of Novemeber. Folks are encouraged to silence their inner critics, give way to the free flow of their ideas, and just get the words out there.

Miller wonders why:

"I'm not worried about all the books that won't get written if a hundred thousand people with a nagging but unfulfilled ambition to Be a Writer lack the necessary motivation to get the job done. I see no reason to cheer them on. Writers are, in fact, hellishly persistent; they will go on writing despite overwhelming evidence of public indifference and (in many cases) of their own lack of ability or anything especially interesting to say. Writers have a reputation for being tormented by their lot, probably because they're always moaning so loudly about how hard it is, but it's the readers who are fragile, a truly endangered species. They don't make a big stink about how underappreciated they are; like Tinkerbell or any other disbelieved-in fairy, they just fade away."

This article also strikes a chord with me. I believe Miller underestimates the salutary effect of outside motivation, but I do agree that people who write tend to keep on writing, regardless of readership, deadlines, or critics inner or outer. I've been writing poetry for decades, to the tune of 5 publications in obscure literary journals, second prize in the local paper's 1989 kiddie poetry contest (for an ABAB tearjerker on Ishi, Last of His Tribe), and an inordinate outlay for stamps. For four years, I've been blogging away, despite a readership that consists entirely of my close friends from college (hi ladies!). None of that matters; I type and type. I do struggle mightily to produce fiction, which I've been beginning to think means I should stop.

And readers...readers ARE disappearing. For every would-be writer, a couple of readers die in their nursing home beds. I feel the same way about musicians vs. listeners. As a culture we have prioritized speaking as opposed to listening, doing as opposed to appreciating. We applaud our children for yodeling, scribbling, dancing, but not for noticing, absorbing, hearing.

In Miller's view, we write because we feel we need to be listened to, and because we feel we are entitled to creative careers. In the academic ghostwriter's view, writing is a utilitarian skill fewer and fewer of us possess. So what are we to do? Write more to attain competency? Write less because no one gives a fig what we've got to say?

I'm torn. Which will probably have zero effect on my daily word output. But I may have to start chanting THOUGH SHALT NOT GHOSTWRITE 100 times every night before bed.

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